The Year Behind, the Year Ahead

champagneA very merry Christmas and the happiest of New Years to all of you! I hope you all got stacks of books during the holiday, and are bright-eyed with everything you’ve read! As I usually do around this time, I wanted to do a little musing about the year’s reading and about some directions I might take in 2017.

This last year, I read 78 books, so one of my resolutions for 2016 (to read more) was achieved, but barely. I think my days of reading 140 books a year may be over for a while! Still, the books I read were mostly excellent, and I’m happy with my choices.

I like to try to read roughly one pre-1900 book, one book by an author of color, and one nonfiction book per month, in addition to anything else I’m into. This year, I managed to make all of those goals, with 13 nonfiction books, 13 books by authors of color, and 12 pre-1900 books. (I kind of feel like I was cheating on the pre-1900 book goal, since several of them were Laura Ingalls Wilder books I’ve read fifty times, but I’m counting them!) In 2017, I’m tweaking one of these goals slightly: I’m going to try to read two books by authors of color each month. I’m hoping this will also encourage me to read more in translation — something I want to do but don’t want to add as a specific goal. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing I’ve done in recent years that has opened my world more than adding this particular goal to my reading. I want more.

And now a quick look back at some of the best (and not-so-best) of 2016:

Best Travel Book: I read quite a few travelogues this year, from Amelia Edwards’s A Thousand Miles Up the Nile to Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa. But the best books about going places were, hands down, the books I read by Robert Macfarlane: Mountains of the Mind and The Old Ways. Macfarlane’s books are a combination of travelogue, memoir, cultural history, geology, geography, and biography. Mountains of the Mind talks about why we continue to climb high mountains even when it kills us, and The Old Ways discusses ancient paths from shielings and Neanderthal paths to pilgrim trails and common ways. Both were beautiful books, well and wryly written, glorious and riveting.

Best Novel in Which the Protagonist Dies More Than Twenty Times: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. This novel has so much death in it that you wind up surprised how thoroughly it is about life — about relationships and love, about ambition and desire, about learning and tenderness. I must have explained the premise of this book to more than a dozen people this year, trying to get them to read it. Just fantastic.

Best Nonfiction that Made Me Laugh So Hard I Snorted: David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. How do I love his nonfiction? Let me count the ways. It makes me laugh, it makes me think, it makes me sad, it makes me want to spend as much time as possible with that mind.

Best Nonfiction That Did Not Make Me Laugh Even Once: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’m so glad I read this essay, especially because it was difficult reading. It’s a time for difficulty, and I want to be ready.

Best Epic Novel: Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman. This enormous Russian novel takes place during World War II, and follows the multifarious fates of the Shaposhnikov family. Grossman himself was present at many of the events he writes about, and his book is vivid (and sharply critical of Stalinism.) It’s an undertaking, and hugely worth it.

Novel I Wanted Everyone to Read: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The characters in this book were so real to me, and the writing so lively, so incisive (and quotable!) that I wanted to hand this out on street corners.

Best Author New to Me: This year, thanks to Tom at Wuthering Expectations, I discovered W.G. Sebald, author of The Emigrants and Austerlitz (among others.) These books touched me deeply with their subtle, haunting, strange explorations of the long shadow of the Holocaust in Europe.

And then…

Absolutely the Worst Novel I’ve Ever Read Ever Ever, No Kidding: The Little Paris Bookshop. This mawkish piece of garbage made me regret my choice to go on living as I read it for two solid hours. Avoid! Avoid!

How has your end of year been? I’d love to hear what books you got or how you are doing.

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15 Responses to The Year Behind, the Year Ahead

  1. Amy says:

    I’m just getting ready to compile my year-end list too. I read fewer books this year, partly because I took on some longer-term reading challenges for myself, and I’m totally happy with that. Among my holiday gifts: the second volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries. I’m just about done with volume 1, and love it.

    • Jenny says:

      What a wonderful present! I’ve read a fair bit of Woolf over the past couple of years, and I would love to dive into her biography and diaries and letters.

  2. Lisa says:

    I recently discovered that someone has chosen The Little Paris Bookshop for a reading group – I will just have to skip that meeting. The same group is also reading Between the World and Me, so at least there’s variety.

    • Jenny says:

      No, are you kidding? Ha ha ha! My group has also read an impressive variety, and I adore the women in it, so I’m sticking with them no matter what they read. Tell them you have a malaise this book can’t cure!

  3. Oh good.

    Have I pushed John Keene’s Coutnernarratives in your direction? You would get it.

    • Jenny says:

      You have not. But now you have. I just looked it up and it looks like it’s exactly up my alley.

      I know you’re a Pynchon fan. How do you feel about Delillo? I just finished White Noise and thought it was both *hilarious* and much warmer than I expected for a vicious takedown of American consumer death culture.

    • I barely know Delillo – just White Noise and a semi-obscurity, Running Dog. For some reason the Airborne Toxic Event became famous, as if it were the defining aspect of an apocalyptic novel, rather than an episode in a satirical domestic comedy. Much theoretical apparatus got dropped on top of White Noise – it became some kind of postmodern testing ground for literary theorists.

      The Professor of Hitler Studies who does not know German, that is good stuff.

      I should read more someday – Libra and Mao II, at least. The baseball novel. Running Dog was also pretty funny, in its own screwy way.

  4. Karen K. says:

    I read The Little Paris Bookshop for a book group also! I wasn’t actually able to attend at the last minute but nearly everyone was underwhelmed. It just seemed so silly and contrived, though it started out with potential. Oh well.

    • Jenny says:

      I thought the cover had potential, but from the first couple of pages I had a terrible sinking feeling. Ugh! Oh well indeed. That was 2016!

  5. Christy says:

    Your review of The Little Paris Bookshop may have been my favorite negative review last year. I hope you take that as some small consolation for having read the thing. :)

  6. Stefanie says:

    DFW made you laugh so hard you snorted? That has got to be one of the best endorsements ever! Thanks for the warning about Little Paris Bookshop, will be staying away from that one! Happy New Year!

  7. Enjoyed reading your superlatives! Life After Life and Americanah are both among my most favorite of novels. Excellent goals for 2017 as well. Happy reading to you!

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